Friday, April 11, 2014

Happy Birthday Mark Wilson!

Today, April 11, 2014 marks the 85th birthday of TV Pioneer Magician Mark Wilson. When I was growing up, I can recall watching Mark Wilson on numerous talk shows like Merv Griffin Show, the Mike Douglas Show, the John Davidson Show and others. He also had his own TV shows, which I did not see growing up because they were not on TV in my area. But these included, The Magic Land of Allakazam, The Funny Face Magic Show, The Magic Circus and The Magic of Mark Wilson. All of these programs were weekly series rather than one time specials.

Mark was truly a pioneer in the world of magic and an early pioneer in television. He certainly deserves a much longer article than this, and I will be working on one in the near future. Mark is a living legend and we wish him the Happiest of Birthdays!!!!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

In Search of Fu Manchu

David Bamberg, Fu Manchu
I first heard of Fu-Manchu/David Bamberg while reading the book The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher. David Bamberg came from a long line of magicians, six generations. His father was the equally famous Okito/Theo Bamberg. But it wasn't until I saw the Le Grand David Show for the first time in 1980 that the Bamberg Dynasty took on new life. Here was a show, Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company, that was inspired by the show's presented by Fu Manchu that Cesareo Pelaez, the groups founder, saw as a boy.

There must be something to this guy, David Bamberg. Then I read that Dai Vernon, Jack Gwynne and Jean Hugard thought the Fu-Manchu Show was the most beautiful show they had ever seen. In fact in his column for Genii Magazine August 1974, The Vernon Touch, Dai Vernon refers to the FuManchu show like this, "to my way of thinking it was the perfect show." Many professional magicians of the 20th Century thought David Bamberg's show was one of the most incredible magic shows to ever grace the theatrical stage. But, precious few people saw the show here in The United States. The show mainly toured South America and Mexico. In that part of the world, Fu-Manchu was bigger than life.

I'm going to share some elements of the life of David Bamberg in the hopes that modern day magicians who are unfamiliar with Fu-Manchu can discover a new respect for this giant in our art.

It all begins with the Bamberg Dynasty of Magicians.

Jasper Bamberg (early 18th Century)
Eliaser Bamberg (1760-1833)
David Leendart Bamberg (1786-1869)
Tobias Bamberg (1812-1870)
David Tobias Bamberg (1843-1914)Papa Bamberg
Tobias (Theo) Bamberg (1875-1963)Okito
David Tobias Bamberg (1904 - 1974)Fu-Manchu

Young David was clearly born into a world of magic. He was appearing as an assistant on stage with his father at the age of four. He would meet every famous magician of the time. When his father Theo was working for Thurston, young David would often be one of the 'volunteers' for the Eggs from Hat routine. One of his earliest jobs was working with The Zancigs, who were a mind reading duo. Julius Zancig apparently did a pretty good selling job on Okito by promising the boys work would not interfere with his studies. The stagename that young David chose was Syko. The name Syko was suggested to him by none other than Harry Houdini.

One of my favorite stories of David's magical education comes when he learns about the early Tarbell Course being offered. According to his autobiography, Illusion Show, David contacted Harlan Tarbell with the hopes of getting on the mailing list. But to his surprise, he began receiving the course along with nessesary gimmicks. He was able to put together two shows that he could travel with easily. Having this magical foundation helped him greatly when he took on the venture of a much larger show.

If you're wondering what material David chose early on, well he lists a few of the items in his book, on pages 152-153. These include: The Egg Bag, The Vanishing Wand, the Linking Rings, the Paper Tearing, the Card in Banana, the Needle Trick, the Multiplying Balls, the Ghost Silk and Tarbell's Cut and Restored Rope (which is a hidden gem).    The Paper Tearing would remain a staple with him throughout his career and he continued to use the other items as fill-in material when needed.

Incidentally, there is a great story in his book Illusion Show on how David Bamberg discovered the mystifying secret to Houdini's Needle Trick. I won't give it away because I don't want to deprive anyone of the wonderful stories contained in the pages of his autobiography.

Before, he ever built his big illusion show, he toured as an assistant with the Great Raymond throughout South America. David's autobiography has many interesting stories of his life touring with Raymond. When the Great Raymond returned to the United States, David remained behind to try and make a go at magic in South America. 

Okito and Fu Manchu
Like his father, David went with an Asian themed show and character. Unlike his father, Theo, who created a unique name OKITO, David took different route. I always thought it was a coincidence that the Fu-Manchu name that David Bamberg used and the Sax Rohmer character called Dr. FuManchu were the same. However, there is no coincidence. Sax Rohmer created the name first, and David appropriated it for his character name. Though, David's character was not a diabolical evil genius. Copyright law prevented him from using the name Fu-Manchu when he came to perform in the United States for a brief time, so for a short time he was known as FuChan.

It was interesting to read that Okito was very discouraging when it came to the idea of a big illusion show. Okito thought it was better to travel light while David had the vision of a much grander production. David's show had other issues besides size. The number of people in the company made it practically impossible to present in the United States, he had to scale the show back some. But in South America and Mexico, where he mainly performed he didn't have the issues with theatrical unions that he ran into here in the States. He did occasionally run into travel issues with a large show. But his success in South America proved that he knew how to make it work.

As Fu-Manchu David was very successful. He eventually made three films as a sort of Magic Detective. The movies are available today through the The three films were called; The Ghost of the Bride (El Espectro de la Novia),  The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin Cabeza), and  The Black Ace (El As Negro).

Fu-Manchu presented his final show in 1966 and then retired and opened a magic shop in Buenos Aires. He passed away on August 19th, 1974 thus ending the longest family dynasty of magicians. There is no grave for David Bamberg as his ashes were scattered at sea.

David Bamberg was certainly a fascinating character. I've mentioned his autobiography ILLUSION SHOW, several times. It is out of print but can still be found. It's a must read for any student of magic. The next book he wrote along with Robert Albo and Eric Lewis is called The Oriental Magic of The Bambergs. This book has many of the secrets not revealed in the Okito on Magic Book by his father. And there are many wonderful photographs of the props used by both Okito and FuManchu. In addition to this, there is a great article written by David Bamberg that appears in GREATER MAGIC in the chapter on Stage Presentation. It's a must read. There is also another fine book on the magic of FuManchu called Illusion Builder to FuManchu by Robert E. Olsen.

Cesareo Pelaez and Juan Tamariz in particular were inspired by the Fu-Manchu Show. Cesareo went on to produce the longest running resident magic show in the history of the U.S. And Juan Tamariz went on to change the face of magic not just in Spain but all over the world!

I used to bring up old articles on Fu-Manchu and read many of the show reviews. For the most part the reviews were the same, complimenting Bamberg on the beauty and spectacle of his marvelous show. I did come across one review however that made me chuckle. The reviewer clearly enjoyed the show but couldn't understand why Fu-Manchu included those 'old' hand shadows in his act. I guess not everyone is a magic historian!

I did a lot of research on David Bamberg for this article, but only ended up using a very small part of what I discovered.  So, I have a feeling I'll be returning to Fu-Manchu again and again.  I hope you enjoyed this brief journey into the life of David Bamberg and I look forward to bringing you more stories from his life in the future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Robert Heller RETURNS

I just heard from the folks at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia and they sent me the above photo! The grave of Robert Heller/William Henry Palmer has been found and is now standing. This is from The Haunt at Mt. Moriah, their FB page is

The grave was first discovered by Harry Houdini, who is seen in the photo on the left. And various others have uncovered the grave since that time. But neglect and abandonment of the cemetery caused the entire grounds to become overgrown and some areas impossible to reach. The Heller grave area was one of those.

A couple years ago I had started to put together a group to go out and help clean up the area where Heller's grave was located. Unfortunately for me, the very day of the cleanup, I got sick. And health issues following have prevented me from partaking in any of the cleanup efforts. That did not stop a band of folks from Philadelphia from going and volunteering their time to clean up this incredible cemetery. The Haunt at Mt. Moriah on Facebook has continued to show images of the cleanup effort and the various graves that have been uncovered.

Imagine my surprise to get the photo at the top of the page sent to me. I thanked them and sent a message asking for permission to use the photo here, but I didn't hear back and then it occurred to me that many they don't answer messages due to sheer volume. So I'm using the photo and given them full credit and my hats off to all the folks who have worked so hard at this cemetery and than you for uncovering Robert Heller's Grave!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Remembering Cesareo

It was two years ago today (March 24) that Cesareo Pelaez passed away. He was 79 and had been suffering from congestive heart failure as well as the after effects of a stroke. Two years ago, I wrote the obit for Cesareo in Genii Magazine. I'm reprinting that piece below.

Cesareo Pelaez
Cesareo Pelaez passed away at 3 a.m. on March 24th, 2012. He was a real wizard for his magic transcended tricks. He dared to dream things that few others even had the courage to imagine, and his dreams became reality.

He was born October 16th, 1932 in Santa Clara, Cuba. As a boy his father took him to see many of the traveling theatrical shows that would visit the island. Among the magicians young Cesareo saw were David Bamberg/Fu Manchu, Richardi Sr. and Jr., and others. These grand productions had a profound effect on Cesareo and they would later become the inspiration for his ultimate theatrical dream, a resident magic company.

In the 1960s, after having studied education and psychology in Cuba, he fled his homeland as Castro’s grip took hold. He escaped disguised as a Priest and would up in Columbia first before coming to the United States. He would eventually become a professor of psychology at Salem State College after having studied with Abraham Maslow.

But for the magic world things really began in the 1970s as Cesareo started to gather the people who would eventually become the founding members of a resident theatrical magic company. Together, they purchased the Cabot St. Cinema Theatre in Beverly Mass, and worked night and day to get it ready for their new production.

On February 20th, 1977, the first performance of Le Grand David and his Own Spectacular Magic Company hit the stage. A 2 hour show of stage magic presented in a manner that hadn’t been seen since the early part of the 20th Century. Lavish costumes, intricately decorated props, beautiful scenery and a cast of thirty people would become the hallmark of their unique brand of magic. The costumes, scenery and most of the props were built, sewn and created by the members of the company under Cesareo’s direction.

Cesareo’s role in the adventure was as leader and director. He chose the character name Marco the Magi, but allowed his young apprentice, David Bull, to get the larger billing.
The show grew in size and scope. At one time they had as many as 60 members in their company.

The magic world took notice of what was going on in this small town and began writing articles about Cesareo and the company. Even TIME Magazine wrote a two-page article about them. By 1984, the Cabot St. Theatre was in full bloom showing movies Monday through Saturday and presenting the Le Grand David Show on Sundays. Now it was time for Cesareo to approach the members of his company with another idea, purchasing a second theatre. The Larcom Theatre was a few blocks away and was originally built by the same people who build the Cabot.

This time professionals largely did the restoration of this theatre, though the decorative work was done in-house. On June 4, 1985 “Le Grand David In Concert” opened at the Larcom. This show had a charm and elegance all it’s own and an achievement that made this group seem unstoppable.

Cesareo kept his full time position as Psychology Professor at Salem State College during this entire time. He had guided the restoration of two theatres, directed two different theatrical magic shows, helped design countless posters and artwork to promote the shows, and was involved in an untold amount of details that many of us will never know. If that wasn’t enough, in 1985, Cesareo was elected President of The Society of American Magicians. Any one of these achievements would be enough for a single individual, but Cesareo’s motivation was different. To him, it was about realizing one’s full potential and about helping others discover abilities they never knew they had. In this way, his efforts were more a labor of love for life and his fellow man, than they were for show business.

In 2005, Cesareo suffered a stroke. He had also been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He did return to the stage briefly, but the illnesses eventually forced him to be a spectator to the shows he helped create. Though he was unable to perform, he never stopped guiding, directing and inspiring his friends and fellow cast members.

Cesareo Pelaez approached all aspects of life with passion, enthusiasm and dedication. He was the consummate teacher demonstrating by the way he lived what heights we could reach if we tried. His life was a testament to the idea that nothing is impossible.

Happy 140th Birthday Harry Houdini

Today, March 24th, 2014, marks the 140th Anniversary of the birth of Ehrich Weiss, better known to the world as Harry Houdini. I'm sure, as his mother was giving birth to young Ehrich in Budapest, she had no idea that her son would become world famous, and his fame would grow even larger after his death.

You'd think that everything that could be written about Houdini has already been covered. But that has proven to be false. New insights and revelations of the Master Mystifier come to light almost every week. Just look at all the Houdini sites listed to the right of this article, along with all the articles I've written on Houdini and you'll see that he is a never ending fountain of information and entertainment.

I think his most amazing feat is his longevity. Sure, the Milk Can was incredible, the Water Torture Cell was awe inspiring, the hanging Strait jacket escape was a thing of genius but all of those have been done by lesser performers (no offense intended). Houdini had something that very few acts ever get, historical timing. The other act that probably can also claim historical timing is a little band called The Beatles. Houdini came along as we moved out of the Victorian era into a Brave New World of industry and technology. The Beatles came along while the world was a fairly innocent place and as the Vietnam War dragged on and the culture changed, the Beatles were there at that same moment in time. Trust me, no one will know who Justin Bieber is in 100 years, but they'll still know Houdini and they'll still be listening to the Beatles.

Houdini has passed the point of being a celebrity and now has moved into the status of legend. His feats seem so wild and crazy that some people are not sure if he was a real person or just a creation of fiction or of Hollywood. Houdini helped to add fuel to that fire while he was alive by embellishing some of his achievements. But in retrospect, he didn't have to. He was extremely fascinating even without the pomp and circumstance.